THE BEST POS­SI­BLE TASTE

In de­fence of fine din­ing.

Esquire (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Matthew Fort

Food critic Matthew Fort makes the case for cel­e­brat­ing the oft-de­rided fine din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence

feet whis­per over the thick pile car­pet. Be­neath a mir­ror in a ro­coco or­molu frame, the ta­ble sits in a pool of light, draped with a heavy damask ta­ble cloth, as white as snow and with the same crisp­ness. Sil­ver cut­lery shim­mers on its sur­face. The light gleams on the glasses as el­e­gant as tulips, as del­i­cate as but­ter­flies’ wings. Set­tle down into the red plush of the ban­quette, lux­ury lap­ping round. The waiter, in black suit­ing and a white shirt, sweeps the nap­kin from the ta­ble and un­furls it.

“A glass of Cham­pagne, sir?” he asks as he hands over the menu. His tone sug­gests supreme au­thor­ity over this space, this guest and their needs. The place, the ta­ble, he, con­spire to make them feel re­laxed, com­fort­able, even so­phis­ti­cated. For the next few hours, all anx­i­eties, trou­bles and ir­ri­ta­tions of the out­side world will be held at bay.

“Some­thing a lit­tle stronger, per­haps.” “You need a Deauville.”

“A Deauville?”

“A quar­ter Coin­treau, a quar­ter Cal­va­dos, a quar­ter ar­magnac, a quar­ter fresh lime juice, over ice, sir. Very restorative.”

“The very thing.”

The heft of the menu speaks of qual­ity. No grease-spot­ted, flimsy bit of A4 pa­per here. The cover is board, the dishes within printed in elab­o­rate script on pa­per with the tex­ture of linen. Their names — potage de tortue Cur­zon; mousse de homard Nep­tune; quenelles de bro­chet, sauce Nan­tua; cervelle au beurre noire; poulet poché Edouard VII; cane­ton en co­cotte Mont­morency; lièvre à la Royale; tourne­dos cen­drillon; rognons de veau em­i­nencé grand veneur; filet de boeuf Lu­cul­lus; baba au rhum; crêpes Suzette — roll like ti­tles from some gas­tro­nomic Al­manach de Gotha. The very words have flavour, carry im­ages, memories, plea­sure. A bub­ble of ex­cite­ment and an­tic­i­pa­tion rises up. Oh yes, oh yes.

the dishes listed above come from var­i­ous restau­rants that plied their trade in Lon­don in the Seven­ties, the last great flour­ish of old style, French-dom­i­nated, swish, haute-cui­sine, fine din­ing that be­gan in the early 19th cen­tury.

This coun­try owes a great debt to the French Rev­o­lu­tion. As their aris­to­cratic masters lost their heads in 1793–’94, the chefs they em­ployed lost their jobs. In a pat­tern that has be­come fa­mil­iar in sub­se­quent cen­turies, some fled to seek em­ploy­ment here. Chefs such as Marie-An­toine Caréme, Charles Elmé Fran­catelli and Alexis Soyer crossed the Chan­nel in search of work and pa­tron­age, bring­ing with them culi­nary skills, so­phis­ti­ca­tion and am­bi­tion largely un­known in Bri­tain. Up to this point, pub­lic eat­ing in Bri­tain had been some­thing of a rough and ready af­fair in chop houses, pubs, inns, hostel­ries and the like. At best the food might be called hon­est, de­cent fare, at worst it was foul. Of course there were ex­cep­tions, the odd aris­to­cratic house­hold, but they were few and far be­tween.

Per­haps as im­por­tantly, th­ese in­com­ers brought with them mar­ket­ing panache and the or­gan­i­sa­tional skills needed to pro­duce dishes of gas­tro­nomic splen­dour. They took over the clubs, in­sti­tu­tions and rich houses. They cooked for roy­alty, the aris­toc­racy and the bur­geon­ing mid­dle class. French food be­came the stan­dard of aspi­ra­tion and the mark of achieve­ment, and so it con­tin­ued through­out the 19th and for most of the 20th cen­turies.

The Fran­cofile in­flu­ence reached its apogee in the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies, when Au­guste Es­coffier, the great grand­fa­ther of mod­ern cook­ing, teamed up with César Ritz and changed the way kitchens and ho­tels — the Savoy and The Ritz in Lon­don among them — worked and mar­keted them­selves. French chefs cook­ing French food in a se­ri­ous, not to say op­pres­sive, French man­ner be­came the hall­mark of what con­sti­tuted fine din­ing.

It set the stan­dards by which all cook­ing in Bri­tain was judged. Haute cui­sine was, ef­fec­tively, de haut en bas — French food first, Bri­tish food a very long way sec­ond. “The Café Royal is pleas­antly con­ser­va­tive and is more like a good French restau­rant of the Sec­ond Em­pire than is any other din­ing place I know in Lon­don,” wrote Nathaniel Newn­ham-Davis in ap­proval in 1899. Ber­tie Wooster summed up the pre­vail­ing view when he de­scribed Ana­tole, Aunt Dahlia’s French chef, as “God’s gift to the gas­tric juices”.

Even when, a cen­tury and a half on, French haute cui­sine was vis­ited by its own rev­o­lu­tion in the form of Nou­velle Cui­sine in the Six­ties, it was promptly ex­ported to Lon­don in the form of French con­sul­tant chefs such as Louis Outhier, Michel Lo­rain and Joël An­tunès. In those days, when it came to high-end eat­ing, we still re­mained slav­ishly at­tached to all things French. Even the most vaunted chefs of the early Nineties were ei­ther French (the Roux broth­ers, Ray­mond Blanc, Pierre Koff­man, Michel Bour­din) or, if Bri­tish (eg, Nico Lade­nis, Marco Pierre White, John Bur­ton-Race), cooked in an unashamedly French man­ner in the grand style.

How­ever, be­hind the mag­nif­i­cent ed­i­fice of for­malised, Frenchi­fied fine din­ing, some­thing was stir­ring. Early shoots of re­sis­tance ap­peared in the Fifties in the form of Ge­orge Perry-Smith at the Hole in the Wall in Bath and Fran­cis Coul­son at the Shar­row Bay Ho­tel. Then, more nu­mer­ously in the Six­ties, chefs such as Tim Cum­mings at Cranes in Sal­is­bury, Joyce Molyneux at the Carved An­gel, Dart­mouth, Ken­neth Bell at The El­iz­a­beth, Ox­ford, dis­tinctly home-grown tal­ents, be­gan to turn their backs on the more op­pres­sive as­pects of French fine-din­ing prac­tices. They were still fun­da­men­tally in thrall to the cook­ing traditions of Con­ti­nen­tal Europe but em­braced lo­cal in­gre­di­ents and even in­tro­duced the odd dish of un­mis­tak­able Bri­tish prove­nance, serv­ing their food in a more re­laxed at­mos­phere.

French dom­i­nance se­ri­ously be­gan to crack in the Six­ties, when a gen­er­a­tion of Ital­ian restau­ra­teurs such as Franco La­gat­tolla and Mario Cas­san­dro in­tro­duced the novel idea that eat­ing out could be fun rather than solemn spec­ta­cle. Hith­erto, restau­rants serv­ing se­ri­ous food were dark, sombre places, din­ing was a stately rit­ual and hu­man pres­ence was hushed by the very grav­ity of the fix­tures and fit­tings and the com­mand­ing unc­tu­ous­ness of the ser­vice. No longer. At La Trat­to­ria Ter­razza in Soho, the pair served de­cent, ac­ces­si­ble food in light, bright rooms with tiled floors (usu­ally de­signed by Enzo Api­cella) that helped am­plify the sound of chat­ter and of peo­ple hav­ing a good time. La Ter­razza was fol­lowed by a num­ber of Mario and Franco es­tab­lish­ments, and they in turn by many oth­ers — Merid­i­ana, Mont­peliano, San Lorenzo, La Famiglia.

And then, in the Eight­ies, came true na­tive rev­o­lu­tion, and the move­ment against fine din­ing re­ally took shape and took hold. Within a few years of each other, Shaun Hill (1983), Sally Clarke (1984), Alas­tair Lit­tle (1985), Si­mon Hop­kin­son at Biben­dum in the former Miche­lin build­ing (1987), Row­ley Leigh at Kens­ing­ton Place (1987), and Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray at The River Café in Ham­mer­smith (1987) opened their restau­rants and their doors on a brave new world of fine din­ing. They set about democratis­ing pub­lic eat­ing with an evan­gel­i­cal fer­vour, main­tain­ing ex­cep­tional stan­dards in their kitchens, but strip­ping away the old-school liturgy and mys­ter­ies, mak­ing fine eat­ing ac­ces­si­ble and in­for­mal.

The de­sign of the restau­rants in which they cooked was as im­por­tant as the food. Kens­ing­ton Place, Leigh’s theatre of dreams, was sym­bolic and em­blem­atic of this great change. De­signed by Julyan Wick­ham, it was specif­i­cally de­signed to break down the bar­rier be­tween the diner and the world out­side. Un­der the old-fash­ioned, French sys­tem, din­ers were en­closed in a co­coon of com­fort. The world, and its at­ten­dant dis­trac­tions, were shut out. At Kens­ing­ton Place, the world and its at­ten­dant dis­trac­tions were as much a part of the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in the restau­rant as any­thing else. There were floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows with­out cur­tains so that passers-by could watch the cus­tomers and vice versa. Each be­came a theatre for the other. Out went the red plush, swagged vel­vet cur­tains, thick pile car­pet and unc­tu­ous maître d’s. In came light­ing in the bright Ital­ian mould. Ta­bles and chairs were smartly demo­cratic in the Scan­di­na­vian style. The menus dis­pensed with florid French and were writ­ten in crisp English. Ser­vice was cheer­ful, friendly and di­rect. The busi­ness of se­ri­ous eat­ing out be­came fun and funky for the younger many.

at first glance, th­ese guer­ril­las of gas­tron­omy seem an un­likely lot. They were all mid­dle class. At least two were univer­sity grad­u­ates, and most had been trained in kitchens that epit­o­mised the very traditions against which they re­belled. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that the in­flu­ence their restau­rants wielded de­pended on the fact that the vast ma­jor­ity of them were in Lon­don. Their rise co­in­cided with a par­al­lel rise of the metropolo-cen­tric food cul­ture, and of the restau­rant re­view­ing and food writ­ing castes in par­tic­u­lar. The most in­flu­en­tial ar­biters of gas­tro­nomic taste such as Quentin Crewe, Fay Maschler and Jonathan Meades were all based in Lon­don. Food, restau­rants and chefs all be­came fash­ion­able. Eat­ing the right thing in the right place be­came a so­cial de­ter­mi­nant, a sub­ject of de­bate, boast and chat­ter. As a con­se­quence, what hap­pened in Lon­don took prece­dence over what might also have been hap­pen­ing else­where.

Of course, in due time the guer­ril­las of gas­tron­omy be­came the new es­tab­lish­ment and they be­gat a new gen­er­a­tion of gas­tro­nomic bol­she­viks. How­ever, the cen­tre of the next wave of culi­nary rad­i­cal­ism moved from Lon­don to the prov­inces, with the likes of Sat Bains in Not­ting­ham, Nathan Out­law in Corn­wall, David Everitt-Matthias in Chel­tenham, Glynn Pur­nell in Birm­ing­ham and, above all, He­ston Blu­men­thal in Bray. The im­por­tance of the ex­tra­or­di­nary suc­cess of The Fat Duck lay not in the school of Blu­men­thal, be­cause there hasn’t been one, but in the fact that we Brits did not need to doff our caps to the French, Ital­ians, Span­ish or any­one else. Blu­men­thal broke the shack­les of culi­nary de­pen­dency and in­fe­ri­or­ity and showed that any Bri­tish chef could match the world by cook­ing the food they wanted to. In other words, supreme qual­ity de­pended on the vi­sion of the in­di­vid­ual chef, not on some no­tional na­tional hi­er­ar­chy.

Now that gen­er­a­tion of chefs has pro­duced a fur­ther crop of tal­ent — Ol­lie Dab­bous, Paul Ainsworth, Lisa Allen, Si­mon Rogan — and they in turn have in­spired yet more, so that there isn’t a cor­ner of the coun­try where you can’t find proper food, much of it bril­liant. Some of the most tal­ented chefs have fol­lowed the gas­tropub route, the spir­i­tual heirs, if you like, of the orig­i­nal guer­ril­las of gas­tron­omy, but many also pre­ferred the con­ven­tions of fine din­ing, al­beit mod­ernised and re­ju­ve­nated.

This has sparked off a ve­he­ment re­ac­tion among our ar­biters of gas­tro­nomic fash­ion. In place of the baroque snob­beries of the former tra­di­tion, a new, per­ni­cious, in­verted snob­bery is stalk­ing the land. It has be­come ha­bit­ual for restau­rant crit­ics to de­ride “fine din­ing” as if it were some contemptible gas­tro­nomic heresy. A bit of the­atri­cal oh là là, suave ser­vice, com­fort­able up­hol­stery, above all, tast­ing menus, are held up as if they were smelly un­der­pants, to be sniffed at by a well-bred con­tem­po­rary nose.

“Fine din­ing: the two most dreaded words in the busi­ness,” wrote Giles Coren. Fay Maschler re­ferred to the “soul­less con­ven­tions of haute cui­sine”. Tim Hay­ward opined: “In the fu­ture, we’ll look back on the time when Phil Howard ‘quit’ fine din­ing as a cli­mac­teric in Bri­tish cui­sine.”

“Once upon a time, I used to scour Miche­lin, es­pe­cially when trav­el­ling, en­dur­ing many a hushed, clenched room and dishes where red pep­pers were tor­tured to look like Mon­dri­ans. This has caused a bit of an al­lergy to the stressy, tweez­ered school of cui­sine, so I’m afraid you won’t find many multi-course tast­ing menus

It has be­come ha­bit­ual for restau­rant crit­ics to de­ride ‘fine din­ing’. A bit of the­atri­cal oh là là, suave ser­vice, com­fort­able up­hol­stery, above all, tast­ing menus, are held up as if they were smelly un­der­pants, to be sniffed at by a well-bred con­tem­po­rary nose

here,” claimed Ma­rina O’Lough­lin in a sur­vey of her favourite restau­rants.

“Have those dreaded faine dain­ing restau­rants dis­ap­peared? Ab­so­lutely not. In cer­tain cen­tral Lon­don post­codes there are more point­less stu­pidi­ties than you could shake a gilded Chanel stick at,” ful­mi­nated Jay Rayner.

It seems ironic that the peo­ple in the best po­si­tion to cel­e­brate food, its plea­sures, its va­ri­ety of forms and its sense of in­dul­gence, should be preach­ing a new pu­ri­tanism. In­stead of be­ing gen­er­ously ec­u­meni­cal in their tastes, crit­ics turn out to be the Ran­ters, Lev­ellers or Dig­gers of con­tem­po­rary gas­tron­omy.

No one in their right mind would want to turn back the clock, but, by con­demn­ing high­end restau­rants and the style they rep­re­sent out of hand, you re­duce the pos­si­bil­i­ties for plea­sure. It’s as if the acme of mod­ern eat­ing out should be re­duced to a nar­row par­a­digm rather than treat­ing the theatre of pub­lic eat­ing as a spec­trum on which dif­fer­ent kinds of restau­rants serve dif­fer­ent peo­ple look­ing for dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences on dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions.

As too of­ten in this coun­try, food is used as a form of so­cial ex­clu­sion, and, in­stead of pro­mot­ing the idea that any­one should feel an in­alien­able right to go to and en­joy restau­rants of style and am­bi­tion (and ex­pense). The mes­sage, once again de haut en bas, is that we, the or­di­nary diner, re­ally shouldn’t bother with fine din­ing be­cause we don’t re­ally un­der­stand what we’re do­ing if we do en­joy it. We’re not part of the club/sect/gang who do.

Sil­vano Gi­raldin, the leg­endary maître d’ho­tel of Le Gavroche, ac­knowl­edges that many restau­rants have only them­selves to fault. “Too many restau­rants are to blame be­cause they kill the fun. The wait­ers in some places don’t know when to shut up. They come along to ex­plain the menu. Then they take the or­der. Then they in­sist on telling you what you’re about to eat when they bring the dishes. And then they tell you to en­joy your­self,” he says. “Per­haps the ex­pe­ri­ence has be­come too chef-ori­ented. Chefs think cus­tomers are there just to eat their food. No. Cus­tomers are there to en­joy them­selves. There’s too much for­mal­ity and rep­e­ti­tion. Leave the cus­tomers alone. If they want to know more, they can ask.”

Tast­ing menus, in par­tic­u­lar, have be­come a tar­get of the oblo­quy of con­tem­po­rary eat­ing. This cen­sure is usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied by dis­parag­ing ref­er­ences to tweez­ers, pipettes, foams, gels, and dishes be­ing the prod­uct of many hands. It seems odd to ob­ject to food look­ing care­fully pre­pared, still od­der that we should worry whether a dish is put to­gether by a soli­tary ge­nius in the kitchen, or by a pla­toon of skilled, will­ing helpers. One might just as well com­plain about a sur­geon lead­ing a team of sur­gi­cal as­sis­tants, tech­nol­o­gists, nurses and anes­the­si­ol­o­gists, and sug­gest they should go about their work with cleavers and tongs.

Not only do bril­liantly crafted plates of food ex­hibit ex­tra­or­di­nary lev­els of skill and visual imag­i­na­tion, they also make the eater feel trea­sured. Some­one — sev­eral some­ones — have worked long and hard to pro­duce such plates of food in per­fect con­di­tion, for you, here and now. Any dish of any am­bi­tion is an ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment, and should be seen as such, not as trial by calo­rie that some peo­ple whose job it is to eat lots of them, moan.

What on earth is wrong with tast­ing menus any­way? OK, the di­ges­tive sys­tems and aes­thetic sen­si­bil­i­ties of the jaded few may feel the strain, but most of us go out to restau­rants for plea­sure. Tast­ing menus have many ad­van­tages. They do away with the agony of hav­ing to make a choice. Un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances, choice is the en­emy, bring­ing about emo­tional in­sta­bil­ity or

Fine din­ing will change, evolve as we be­come more de­mand­ing in our tastes. The worst ex­cesses will be reined in, new ex­cesses will be in­tro­duced. But it will re­main another point on the panoply of plea­sures

caus­ing us to re­vert to our com­fort foods be­cause we can’t make up our minds.

Tast­ing menus also neatly cir­cum­vent the pos­si­bil­i­ties of menu envy. How many times have you thought, “I wish I was hav­ing that” as you peer at the food on some­one else’s plate? Or re­sented when some­one else at your ta­ble says, “Do you mind if I try your...?” Yes, I bloody well do. Nor do you get those em­bit­tered thoughts when it comes to pay­ing the bill, you know the kind of thing: “I know we agreed to go halves, but that was be­fore you de­cided to have the lob­ster and I had the quinoa salad.”

There are none of those kinds of dis­cor­dant notes with tast­ing menus. They bring equal­ity be­fore the menu and pro­vide ab­so­lute cer­tainty that you know what you’re go­ing to be eat­ing, how much you’re go­ing to be eat­ing and how much it’s go­ing to cost you. It’s not as if chefs come up with tast­ing menus be­cause they want to show off their daz­zling skill or cre­ative wiz­ardry to their cus­tomers. No, they do them be­cause that’s what many peo­ple ask for. It’s an eco­nomic de­ci­sion, not a culi­nary one.

I once took He­ston Blu­men­thal to task for do­ing away with the à la carte menu at The Fat Duck. He said when they’d an­a­lysed what peo­ple asked for, 90 per cent went for the tast­ing menu. It didn’t make fi­nan­cial sense, he said, to keep an à la carte menu, with its qual­ity con­trol, kitchen man­age­ment and wastage, for the re­main­ing 10 per cent. Small won­der that not-in­signif­i­cant restau­rants such as elBulli, Noma, Mu­garitz opted to serve only tast­ing menus.

And if you don’t want to work your way through a tast­ing menu, you don’t have to. In truth, most restau­rants of­fer al­ter­na­tives, and there are plenty of restau­rants that don’t of­fer them at all. The choice is up to you. But to ob­ject to them on a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple seems con­de­scend­ing, petty-minded and re­stric­tive.

Like all hu­man ac­tiv­ity, fine din­ing can be well done or badly done. When badly done, it’s a te­dious bore of prodi­gious ex­pense. When well done, it is an im­pec­ca­bly crafted jour­ney that cos­sets the senses, lifts the spir­its and sends us out soothed and strength­ened to face the sturm und drang of life. As Gi­raldin says, “Of course, fine din­ing has a fan­tas­tic place in the range of ways to eat. When it’s done well, there’s noth­ing like it.”

It’s re­as­sur­ing that in spite of re­jec­tion by ex­hausted crit­ics, the con­cept of fine din­ing shows lit­tle in­cli­na­tion to go away. “I love fine din­ing,” de­clares St John’s Fer­gus Hen­der­son. “Of course it’s not dead,” says chef Jason Ather­ton. “There are al­ways enough peo­ple out there who want the finer things in life.” Maybe, he sug­gests, fine din­ing will change. “There’s a move to­wards smaller restau­rants spe­cial­is­ing in this kind of ex­pe­ri­ence, 20 or 24 cov­ers.”

There is only one ques­tion you re­ally need to ask your­self at the end of any meal: “Do I mind pay­ing the bill?” If you’ve been sep­a­rated from your dosh with­out a quiver of pain, it’s been worth it. If, on the other hand, you feel a deep sense of re­sent­ment, you haven’t. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, I am just as likely to feel the lat­ter in some uber-fash­ion­able, care­fully dis­tressed, down-and-dirty mod­ern eatery as I am in some damask and glit­ter­ing glass­ware, 21-course tast­ing-menu tem­ple of gas­tron­omy.

The New Yorker’s Adam Gop­nik wrote, “The restau­rant, whether at its most ab­stract, ritzy form or at its most el­e­men­tal, can al­ways be di­verted back to­ward a pri­mal magic, a mood of mis­chief, stolen plea­sures, a re­treat from the world, a boat in a storm.” Fine din­ing will change, evolve as we be­come more de­mand­ing in our tastes. The worst ex­cesses will be reined in, new ex­cesses will be in­tro­duced. But it will re­main another point on the panoply of plea­sures.

It will sur­vive the ag­o­nised moans of the crit­ics, be­cause, dare I say, many of us pay­ing cus­tomers ac­tu­ally en­joy “a re­treat from the world” that the oc­ca­sional bout of dress­ing up and be­ing pam­pered in ex­pen­sive lux­ury: snowy napery, heavy grav­ity cut­lery, the light wink­ing on the ser­ried ranks of wine glasses, the deft way our needs are met, nay, an­tic­i­pated, the un­der­stated psy­chother­apy of the high-grade waiter, the or­dered swish and glide of the ser­vice, and, yes, plates of exquisitely or­dered food, the sense that we don’t have to worry about any­thing (ex­cept pos­si­bly the bill). The whole ex­pe­ri­ence is — or should be — akin to sink­ing into the back seat of a turbo-charged Bent­ley Con­ti­nen­tal and mur­mur­ing to the chauf­feur, “Home James, home James, and don’t spare the horses.”

Left: now con­sid­ered one of the great­est pioneers of mod­ern cook­ing tech­niques, Au­guste Es­coffier, right, at­tends a West­min­ster culi­nary ex­hi­bi­tion, Lon­don, 1899

Staff dis­cuss the day’s menu at The Ritz Restau­rant, Pic­cadilly, Lon­don, 1963

From left: Mario Cas­san­dro and Franco La­gat­tolla at their Lon­don La Trat­to­ria Ter­razza restau­rant in the Fifties; celebri­ties in­clud­ing Emma Freud, Richard Cur­tis, Naomi Watts, Scar­lett Jo­hans­son and Beni­cio del Toro dine at a pre-Baf­tas party, San...

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